I’m Not Okay, and That’s Okay
My Fight With Panic Disorder
For a few weeks one summer, I stopped eating. It was the summer before I was about to begin high school, and I was playing Sandy in a production of Grease at my summer camp. When my friends at camp started to notice my weight loss, I told them that I just wanted to look good in the spandex suit I needed to wear for the final scene of the show. I said I was just trying to get into character. I said that I only identified with the goody-goody Sandy and I needed to find bad-girl Sandy. I was a method actress, for god’s sake. I said I ate when I was at home. I said I felt amazing.
I couldn’t stop shaking. I thought I was dying. At night, I would sit on my mom’s bathroom floor and perpetually throw up, and I’d beg her to take me to the emergency room. I told her to feel my pulse. She kept telling me I was okay. She promised that I was okay. She said that the feeling would go away. I asked her why I couldn’t eat, and she said it was the anxiety. I didn’t understand what “the anxiety” was. She gave me a peach pill that helped me fall asleep.
I begged her to let me stay in the play. Being in the play was the only thing that distracted me from feeling like this. It was all I wanted. She said I could stay in the play if I saw a therapist right when it was over.
“I don’t understand what this anxiety is,” I’d say, “I’m not worried about anything in particular.”
“I know, sweetie,” she’d say, “That’s why it’s the worst. But you’ll be able to eat again. You’ll be able to fall asleep without medicine. This won’t stop you from doing anything you want to do in life.”
“But mom,” I’d ask, “How am I still alive if there’s no food in my body?”
She taught me about fight or flight, letting me know that my body is a lot smarter than I am.
My body is a deceitful monster.
I lost the weight in my face first, then in my arms and legs. I hardly recognized myself in the mirror. By the night of the performance, my five-foot-seven frame weighed 105 pounds. The breasts I had proudly acquired during puberty disappeared.
I was required to wear a strapless bra for my costume, and the one my mom bought for me at the beginning of the summer was so big it slid down to my hips the minute I clasped the hooks together. Moments before the performance, I went up to the director, Randi, who was also the closest thing I had to a sister, and held the bra out to her like I was grasping onto the tail of a dead mouse.
“I think we need to safety pin it,” I said.
“I think we need to talk, Carl,” she said.
I got a little teary-eyed, and Randi took my hand and led me to the boy’s dressing room, which was empty. All the boys were backstage trying to get the Pink Ladies to kiss them, or at least let them touch their newly acquired breasts. None of the boys wanted to kiss or grope the shaky, fragile girl who couldn’t even fit into her strapless bra, I thought.
Randi and I sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by piles and piles of the boy’s clothes, all reeking of Axe deodorant mixed with B.O. Before either of us could open our mouths, my head fell into her lap as I sobbed. I whispered through my tears, “what’s wrong with me?” over and over and over again.
Randi just sat there with me, rubbing my back, not saying a word. I felt like she could read my mind, like she knew that I wasn’t doing this on purpose, that I wanted to eat so badly, that it wasn’t about food, that I woke up every morning shaking and sweating, drowning in panic. I felt like she wasn’t mad at me, and that made me feel better. I just didn’t want anyone to be mad at me.
After a few minutes, she whispered, “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you, my love.”
I looked up. “How do you know?”
“Because I can feel you shaking. It happens to me, too. I know what it’s like to not be able to keep food down, no matter how hard you try. It’s anxiety. Mine started when I was your age.”
“You mean it never goes away?”
“Oh, my love, it does. It just comes in spurts. Spurts of panic. I promise, they go away.”
“But they come back?”
“Yes, but over time, you learn how to take care of them. You learn what makes you feel better. You figure out what you need. The therapy helps. You’ll be able to eat again.”
This must’ve been why my mom wasn’t worried, either. She must’ve had this, too. But I still didn’t know what this was.
This is panic disorder. This is gamma-Aminobutyric acid not making its way to my amygdala in time. This is shortness of breath and an inability to keep food down. This is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This is passing out in the shower.
This is Xanax. This is Klonopin. This is Effexor. This is Prozac.
This is yoga. This is running. This is spinning. This is sleeping. This is never getting out of bed. This is weight loss and weight gain. This is trips to the emergency room for doctors to tell you:
This is all in your head.
Well, it feels like I was just run over by a truck.
I ended up finding a therapist I loved. Her name was Susan and she had the kindest smile I’d ever seen. Her office smelled like amber and she always hugged me when I walked through the door. She helped me find the right medicine. She taught me how to breathe through attacks, and how to treat myself with care. She gave me emotional homework assignments and she let me call her at any hour of the day.
I could eat again. I still needed medicine to sleep, but I got my boobs back. It felt like a fair trade.
I was going to be okay.
I tried seeing a new therapist when I moved to New York for college. I decided I wanted to go to a man, because I was a mature and sophisticated New Yorker now and could totally handle talking to a man about my deepest insecurities while he wrote down every word I said. I also feel most comforted by men — just by their presences. Does that go against my feminist values? Potentially.
Don’t blame me, blame the panic disorder. Blame the loneliness it makes me feel. Blame the biology.
The first time I went to Dr. D, he asked my why I was there. I told him about my history with panic disorder, about my attacks that made me so wildly anxious and physically ill that I could only be calmed down by copious amounts of Xanax until I ultimately fell asleep. I told him about the weight loss and gain, and the mood swings, and the passing out. I told him how they’ve gotten progressively better since high school, since I started seeing my therapist at home. I told him that because of her, I know how to work my way through the attacks by myself now — how I don’t need my mom next to me on the bathroom floor anymore.
From there, Dr. D stopped me.
“What’s your relationship with your mom like?”
“It’s, um, good,” I replied, “We’re very close.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, she’s a therapist. So is my grandmother. I’m so lucky that they understand my disorder, that — “
“No,” he tells me, “No. Your family members can’t be your doctors.”
“They’re not,” I laughed. “I have a therapist at home. Susan. It’s right there on the chart you’re holding.”
“How did Susan feel about your closeness with your mother and grandmother?”
“Sorry, I was just in the middle of telling you some stuff I really wanted to talk about. I don’t feel like talking about this right now — “
“That’s exactly what this is, though, Carly,” Dr. D. quietly and condescendingly informed me, “This is supposed to be a challenge.”
A challenge? Isn’t my panic disorder a challenge enough? Aren’t the five class and rehearsals and the boyfriend enough? Do I really need another challenge?
But there was something about Dr. D. that felt right. I felt like he could make me better. I felt like he had answers.
Dr. D. was a mystery. He didn’t have anything in his office except old books and two chairs and a box of tissues. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. He wore Tevas with his suit. He never told me that I was smart, or that I would be okay, or that this would pass. He told me I needed to work through my pain.
It was scary, and I was intrigued by it.
I saw Dr. D for two years, and had some of my worst attacks while I was in treatment with him. But there was something about him that kept me coming back. He made me feel like my problems were real — that problems can be in your head and still be real. I liked that he was a man. He made me feel safe.
But then he tried to take me off my meds. He told me I should come in three times a week. He told me that was the only way to solve my problem.
That’s when I dropped out.
I called Susan, my therapist from home, as I left his office. I told her that I wanted her back. She told me it would all be okay.
I was beginning to question this whole “being okay” thing.
I recently found myself lying in bed at three in the morning in a deep sweat, heart racing and stomach churning, and I knew exactly what I needed to make me feel better. The former is a regular occurrence, the latter a rarity. It wasn’t Xanax or Klonopin, but I’d take one of them anyway, out of habit.
In that moment, all I wanted was someone to lie in bed next to me. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted someone to love me and hold me in their arms and show me that I’m not alone. And I know that’s sappy, and I know it’s not a cure, and I know it’s probably not the healthiest way to practice self-care or self-love, because I shouldn’t need someone else’s presence to make me feel better. I should be able to get through the attacks by myself at this point.
I’ve battled with panic disorder for over half of my life — I should know the drill. I should recognize my shallow breathing and take deep breaths with my diaphragm. I should play my meditation recordings. I should stretch. I should massage my ear lobes (yes, this actually calms you down).
I should, I should, I should. But that’s not how panic disorder works. And that’s why it’s so hard to talk about it.
I didn’t call anyone to come over and hold me that night, though, because the thought of making myself that vulnerable and explaining myself felt way too overwhelming and tedious. It made me anxious. So I waited for the drugs to kick in and I fell back asleep. I would rather sleep than talk about it. I would rather smoke than talk about it. I would rather go to the gym and scrutinize my body in the locker room mirror than talk about it.
Panic is so hard to talk about because I feel so dissociated from the experience after it happens. I can tell you the facts: I sweat uncontrollably; I throw up, my heart races. I lose my appetite. My mouth gets dry. Every sound becomes louder and longer. It feels like the floorboards are trying to talk to me. If I try to write, the sound of the pen touching the paper is too much to bear. Every thought I have echoes deeply in mind and no matter how hard I try, I can’t shut out the bad stuff, the bad thoughts, or the thoughts I just don’t want to think about anymore.
And that’s where the contradictions come alive — the contradictions that have weighed me down throughout my life. I hate being alone, but I need to be alone. When the attacks hit while I’m in a public space, I feel like I can hear every one’s thoughts. I feel like I have emotional synesthesia. It’s all so loud, so all-consuming, so disorienting. When I’m alone, at least I only hear my own thoughts, feel my own pain, smell my own sweat. When I’m alone, at least I’m not anyone else’s burden. But when I’m alone, I’m the most scared. I can’t win.
And that’s because this isn’t something I can win. My panic lives in every crevice of my body. It’s always ready to fight. And I’m always ready to fight back.
It’s not always going to be okay. But being held helps. Love helps. Being told you’re okay helps. Contradictions help.
If it were all going to be okay, that would make for a pretty boring story.